It’s late in the race. You’re exhausted. Finish line’s in sight. Goal time within reach. This is a defining moment but you’re redlining. You need something extra.
This is where music comes on in the movies. The score to ‘Rocky’, to ‘Chariots of fire’, to ‘8 mile’. If I could just hear the right song right now, you think, it would give me what I need. It would push me through.
I’ve been here. I’ve heard the music and I’ve won the race, beaten the time.
But the songs that cane weren’t the one I expected.
Let’s have a listen shall we?
What’s on your playlist?
I went to Private school as a kid. Either my parent’s weren’t impressed with my academic progress, the local school system, or both. They decided it was time to for me to follow my Sisters to Thayer Academy in Braintree.
My friends talked down on Private school. Who can blame ’em? Everybody talks down on Private school until it’s time to choose a school for their kid. The world hates rich kids. Think on that stereotype a moment: entitled, sweater tied around his shoulders, crashing Daddy’s jag after a weekend at a friend’s ski house. Rich Kids are always the villain, or a self loathing protagonist in the case of Holden Caulfield.
My new school sucked at sports and nobody there was tough- according to my neighborhood friends.
I hated that part of being a Private School Kid: The world assuming that I was entitled and weak.
That I lacked a backbone.
There’s nobility in coming from Public school, right? You grew up in that town. You represented. You had roots. You started at home plate, not third base.
And after all is said and done you have something no one can gift the rich kids in their fancy little private school: authenticity.
The quest for authenticity was part of my teenage years. I wasn’t from my hometown. I lived there, sure; but I ceased being from there the moment I transferred. I had roots at Thayer (great school) but the campus was small, tucked away into a small corner of Braintree.
A town that never really claimed us.
Wait, what am I saying? The Braintree kids LOVED US.
As in… they LOVED fucking with us. I was often chased by Braintree High kids when I went running off campus. They never caught me but, believe me, a few of them tried. Chi-Raq this was not, but consider…
- I had a rock the size of my fist hurled at my head while running through the Braintree high parking lot. A prehistoric drive by. No good reason for it, just a ‘take that Rich Kid’.
- I was chased by a car full of Braintree kids for flipping them off… after they drove through a large puddle and tried to drench me.
- I was chased onto campus after a confrontation with some Braintree kids at a local park. It went like this:
RUNNING MAN and his friends, among them JOSH, play basketball. They are approached by some BRAINTREE KIDS.
Hey Pussy! You have a fucking problem?
Running man and his friends note that they are outnumbered.
Nah, we were just leaving.
What college are you going to next year?
Thayer kids run. Braintree kids chase.
Got some time? I could go on. Like I said, those kids loved us.
I felt inauthentic. I didn’t belong anywhere (not Braintree, not home). I belonged at Thayer but there’s that whole ‘I don’t want to be a part of any club that would have me as a member’ thing, coupled with the rich kid stereotypes. So I sought out ways to prove I was tough, that I could belong somewhere.
But let’s be honest. I’m a Runner not a fighter.
So to prove how tough I was I developed what my family so charmingly called ‘a mouth’.
And I listened to tough music.
What is more authentic to a young person than music? Loud. Angry. Lots of swears (just keeping it real). Artists who prided themselves on how honest and real they were. Listening made me feel like I was tough. I wasn’t. But when they talked about the hood, about death, and about drugs, about groupies, I was right there with them.
Listening made me street smart, right?
I could survive a bar fight cause I listened to Guns N Roses.
I knew all about Gangs and drugs cause I listened to Dre.
Music gave me a tourist’s pass through being tough. It didn’t completely fill the void, but it was a start.
I remember a friend’s aunt amusing herself by playing the Geto boys for a couple of 10 year Olds. Talk about a shock. I still remember it today. Vividly. Funniest car ride of my life.
I remember hearing NWA/LL Cool J/Slick Rick and thinking ‘My God… Did I just hear that? Did they just say that?’
How can I explain what hearing that felt like?
You’re constantly told by your parents that you have it easy, that you have no idea about the ‘real world’. That it would chew you up and spit you out faster than the wind from a ducks ass.
That you have no idea what it’s like out there.
Ahem… I listened to ‘let a hoe be a hoe’ in 5th grade, ‘Appetite for Destruction’ a year before that. I think I know about this so called real world.
Life can’t deliver no surprise to me.
The main attraction was the music, the beat, the vocal percussion, the melody; but the alleged realness added to it. If I understood what they were saying then I was more than some snotty rich kid. I was REAL. I was street smart. I had to be taken seriously.
This is what I would listen to entering the ring before a heavy weight fight. This music was toughness channelled into speakers. I listened to this music before races to get psyched. To get pumped. To get angry. Because anger helps you run fast, right? Michael Phelps knows what I’m talking about.
I remember being told to play angry as a kid. To play with a chip on my shoulder. It makes you tougher. Better.
And this music was anger distilled.
Excerpt from the Runinng Man’s High school pump up mixtape:
- Time’s Up- OC
- Scream- Michael Jackson
- Craziest- Naughty by Nature
- U Da Man- Black Moon
- Bulls on Parade- Rage Against the Machine
- Scam- Jamiroquai
- State of Love and Trust- Pearl Jam
- Give it Away- Red Hot Chili Peppers
- The Choice is Yours- Black Sheep
- Slam- Onyx
- Stranded on Death Row- Dr. Dre
- The Distance-Cake
I could go on. For the most part this is angry music. Listening to this mix pre race was like taking PED’s.
Or was it slowing me down?
Can you run angry and still run fast?
Does tough/angry music help?
As they say in music… let’s take it from the top.
I made a ‘Pump up Jams’ mix CD during one cross country season. I mean, listening to this thing would probably make you rob a liquor store, steal a car…something.
‘Your honor, in my defense I was listening to ‘Me against the World’ by Tupac.’
‘Case dismissed. Listen to some Vivaldi next time young man.’
I placed the ‘Pump Up Mix’ in the wrong CD case (remember those). I was on the bus to Lawrence Academy when I popped open the CD case and found Sade’s ‘Best Of’ instead of my usual diet of fight music. The bus ride was over an hour and all my teammates were listening to their headphones to get pumped up. So I made do.
I was going up against one of the best runners in the league and ‘Smooth Operator‘ was supposed to get my competitive juice flowing. Good luck Steve.
If you’re at home laughing at my music taste I suggest you listen to ‘Stronger than Pride‘. Only one of the 5 best love songs ever.
A funny thing happened during that race.
I got to the final quarter mile of the race with a slim lead. The previous year this guy finished third in the league meet. I finished 20th. This was Fight music time. This was where anger would push me to the finish, right?
I don’t know about you but sometimes music comes on my head. I can hear it clear as day. Not in a Brian Wilson, I hear original compositions in my sleep way, but just like someone turned on the radio. It’s not something I can call on at will, but it happens a lot when I run.
Sade’s ‘Kiss of Life‘ came on full blast. This is about as un-hardcore as you get.
But I sped up. I got into the zone. I felt happy; light. I found another gear, charged up the final hill and straight through some thick puddles.
I won my first cross country race… and the soundtrack was smooth jazz.
That’s about as wimpy as you get. But you know what? Winning solves everything. I got over it.
Maybe there’s different kinds of toughness.
Maybe loud, angry music isn’t synonymous with toughness, or authenticity.
Or maybe it is, but just not for me. Perhaps I’m at my best when I’m relaxed.
And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that.
I dropped my teammate off later that night. We drove to his house, listening to the radio, dissecting our respective races. We made plans to meet up later, clapped hands and he left. He closed the door behind him and I pulled one of these:
I immediately cranked ‘Kiss of Life’ on my ride home. Probably played it ten times straight… and loud.
What’s on your next pump up Jam, Running Man? Kenny G?
Funny you should ask.
The thing about music- it has a shelf life. You listen to a song enough times and it loses steam. You know every note. It becomes rote. The effect diminishes. Sade wasn’t working anymore. I found myself in search of that song that would take me up a notch. That aural PED.
I wasn’t fully ready to ditch hardcore music yet. I went to college when DMX and Eminem’s popularity was at an apex. There were still plenty of pump up mixtapes… but now they looked like this:
- It’s on- DMX
- My Name is- Eminem
- Contusion- Stevie Wonder
- Deeper Underground- Jamiroquai
- Kiss of Life- Sade
- Singin’ for the Lonely- Robbie Williams
- Tubthumping- Chumbawumba
Hard… and mellowing.
It wasn’t until college that my running really began to take off. You think you’re hot shit in high school when you’re all league/all state. Then you get to college and realize everyone in every race was all league and all state. You have to figure out how to adapt to that level of competition. You have to train a certain way. And you have to toughen up.
This search for authenticity on and off the track led me to Pre.
Steve Prefontaine made running cool. He was handsome, fast as hell and had an attitude. He didn’t run a race to see who was the fastest. He ran to see who had the most guts.
Tough. Authentic. This is where my search led me. If I trained hard enough maybe I could do this. But Pre was from Coos bay, a working class town where you could get ‘decked for holding your glass wrong’. Me, I went to Private school in Braintree where they throw rocks at you for going to private school.
Somewhere along the line I had forgiven myself for going to Thayer. My Parent’s kicked ass and wanted me to go somewhere special. I’m not going to apologize for their caring. Besides the Allisons weren’t wealthy enough for me to be the rich kid cliche. Believe it or not I made it through his school without crashing Daddy’s jag, doing too much cocaine or tying a sweater over my Polo shirt.
I wanted to be like the version of Pre shown in the movie ‘Without Limits’. Cocky, strong, the song ‘Summon the Heroes‘ by John Williams scoring my victories.
But it was classical. It wasn’t written by a tattooed rapper or rock star. It was written by a guy who looks like this:
The adjective tough does not come to mind.
But the song captured me. On long road trips I’d retreat into my headphones , stare out the window and see myself thundering down the home stretch, exhausted, music blaring, victorious.
My teammate Tim Georoff noticed me putting the John Williams CD in my travel bag one day. ‘Yeah… ‘Summon the Heroes’, right?’ he said, and I was like:
We both LOVED the opening chords of the song. ‘BA NA NAAAAA, BUM, Ba naaa ba nanaaaa….’ Tim ran the hurdles but lets be honest- every runner wants to be Pre.
It was outdoor track. The Maine winter had worn me down. The weather wouldn’t warm up, every training run was spent picking my way through mud soaked paths. I had overcome a tough winter, a bad bout of the flu and still come within .01 seconds of being an All American indoor miler a month earlier.
I gave that season everything and came up short. .01 seconds short. I was depressed. Not in a lock yourself into the room and sleep all day, but I wasn’t enjoying myself. I wasn’t in flow.
The depression followed me to the conference meet. NESCACs were a two day affair back then. Relays and prelims on Saturday, Finals on Sunday. I anchored the Distance medley Saturday and got my ass kicked by a really gifted Miler from Bates. I let my teammates down. The depression deepened.
The next day I was one of the top two seeds for the mile but I wasn’t feeling it. I had run over :10 seconds slower than my PR in the relay.
Where does one go when the going gets tough? Pre didn’t have bad races. How do you pull yourself out of an athletic funk?
Well, my Mother had some choice words for me on my way to the start (detailed here). That got me going.
The race went off and I positioned myself in the front of pack. I went through the motions for two laps. It was VERY windy so no one wanted to lead. Nobody made a move. Everyone was waiting for someone else. We trudged.
And then the bell lap. Everybody made a move at once. I got shuffled to the back as a bunch of guys passed me before the turn.
Rule #1 of track and field– don’t pass in a turn. You end up running further than you have to. Trust me on this. I’m a 2 time All American who is .02 seconds from being a 4 time All American. Seconds count. Inches count. Don’t run farther than required.
Did I follow this advice? Of course not.
‘BA NA NAAAAA!’
The opening chords to ‘Summon the Heroes’ blared in my head and I reacted. I took off. I passed EVERYONE on the turn. I dug deeper and found another gear, faster than ever before. The music continued to blare on the back stretch. I couldn’t hear a thing outside of trumpets and drums.
And there was Tim, grinning ear to ear, watching from the corner with 100 yards to go, waving his finger’s like conductor’s wands.
‘BA NA NAAAAA!’
There I was: home stretch, music blaring, exhausted, running into a stifling head wind with everything I had.
Tim and I talked about that afterward. It wasn’t in my head. He heard it.
Experience is the greatest teacher. And experience was revealing that volume/anger didn’t necessarily mean tough.
Bad words and attitude didn’t mean tough.
Maybe being tough was just handling what life sets in front of you.
Maybe tough could be classical… or smooth jazz. Or polka. Or even (gulp) country.
Toughness/authenticity had slowly morphed for me. I used to think I could get it through music/movies or coming up hard. I was learning there are different ways to be tough. Maybe one way to be tough was confronting a mental funk. Maybe a kid from private school could get tough if he just decided to run hard.
Two anecdotal stories about me getting better results from relaxing music led me to this conclusion:
Anger will get you off the start line, over a hill, away from a predator but as a race strategy it will fail.
Go ahead. Get Angry. Flex your muscles. Grit your teeth. Scream at the top of your lungs.
Do it for a mile.
How’d that work out?
Anger can give you a burst but running is all about the flow. So wrong sport.
I had no idea. I thought my pregame had to be loud. It had to be tough. It had to shake speakers. Let people know how tough I was. How REAL I was.
Let’s find more proof. Let’s look at science. Look at the effect of loud music on water:
Look at the difference between Heavy Metal and classical. Metal is a mess. Classical is organized, clear, beautiful.
I’m gonna go ahead and lump rap and hard rock in with metal.
‘So what?’ you say. ‘Loud music pumps me up. Look at Phelps. This is the effect of music on water, not on me. What do you have to say about that?’
You’re composed of 70% water.
It worked for Phelps because he’s a sprinter. Or because he’s Michael Phelps, he’s the GOAT and nothing can stop him.
Maybe he could have gone faster listening to John Williams?
Without further ado here’s The Running Man’s List of proven performance enhancers (the 5 from the title):
- Summon the Heroes- John Williams
- Rodeo- Aaron Copland (Can’t listen to this and not get in flow.
- Kiss of Life- Sade
- Singin’ for the Lonely- Robbie Williams (the last :45 seconds of this song led me to a 2 mile PR- at the end of a 7 mile workout).
- Tubthumping- Chumbawumba (NESCACS Cross Country championships my freshman year. This song led to my first decent Collegiate race).
And how about four more suspected performance enhancers (unproven as of yet):
- Live Your Life- Yuna (this song is just complete flow. Perfect for long races. I’m expecting to hear it durimg the middle miles of a long race).
- Coming Home (instrumental)- Madlib (simultaneously beautiful and tough, like a runner with perfect form running on the knife’s edge).
- aujord hui c’est toi- Francis Lai (This song is thunderous, and cool. I can feel this one coming on late in a race).
- Contusion- Stevie Wonder (only the most epic guitar solo in R&B history).
IMHO You’ll run better, lift better, perform better when you’re in flow.
When your tunes clarify. Organize. Focus. Like water crystals.
I’m a Z health trainer. I’m consistently blown away by what I’ve learned in Z.
The main belief in Z: the brain runs your body.
Every aspect of movement, mood, and performance starts in the brain. And the brain shows immediate results. When your brain is happy you get instantly stronger, more flexible, more relaxed. When unhappy we get weaker and less flexible.
This shows up in strength and range of motion assessments.
So lets find out what kind of music enhances your performance. Break out your headphones. Cue up some classical music and perform a range of motion assessment.
Then listen to something hard core. Retest. I did it for you HERE.
I can’t claim our results will be the same… but clearly my results are better when I listen to classical. There’s even a name for this: the Mozart effect.
But maybe death metal made you stronger. The Metallica effect?
The Michael Phelps effect?
We’re all different. In fact I WISH I assessed better with hardcore music- I like it more.
But alas… My body is happiest with smooth jazz and classical. It is my cross to bear.
You’ll perform better when you’re HAPPY. Trust me.
The kind of music that acts as your aural PED may not be what you think. Try a variety.
And hope the right song comes on when you need it.
I’ve been around long enough to know that the loudest person in the room can be the weakest.
Or just the loudest.
Same goes for music.
Tough talk is one thing.
And toughness is another.
Same goes for music.
That’s the truth Ruth…. Taught in the school of hard knocks…
And private school.
What’s on your pre game mixtape? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and help me get inspired.
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